'Good mornin', Good Mornin', You Raped Me...': 'Singin' in the Rain' and Fiona Apple
Updated: Jun 1, 2020
Fiona Apple’s newest album Fetch the Boltcutters (released on April 17, 2020) has become a universal anthem for the age of Coronavirus, as Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris discuss on their podcast – one of my favorites – “Still Processing.” Wortham and Morris take us through Apple’s career – her sudden rise with her video “Criminal” which mainstreamed “heroin chic” as a defining trend of the 90’s, followed by her equally sudden collapse after her acceptance speech at the MTV VMA awards:
Everybody out there that's watching, everybody that's watching this world?
This world is bullshit.
And you shouldn’t model your life — wait a second — you shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything.
Go with yourself. Go with yourself.
In Emily Nussbaum’s piece for the New Yorker on Fiona Apple in the weeks preceding the release of Fetch the Boltcutters, Nussbaum contextualizes Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” era:
The turn of the millennium became an electric, unstable period for Apple, who was adored by her fans but also mocked, and leered at, by the male-dominated rock press, who often treated her as a tabloid curiosity—a bruised prodigy to be both ogled and pitied. Much of the press’s response was connected to the 1997 video for “Criminal,” whose director, Mark Romanek, has described it as a “tribute” to Nan Goldin’s photographs of her junkie demimonde—although the stronger link is to Larry Clark’s 1995 movie, “Kids,” and to the quickly banned Calvin Klein ads depicting teens being coerced into making porn. When Apple’s oldest friend, Manuela Paz, saw “Criminal,” she was unnerved, not just by the sight of her friend in a lace teddy, gyrating among passed-out models, but also by a sense that the video, for all its male-gaze titillation, had uncannily absorbed the darker aspects of her and Apple’s own milieu—one of teens running around upper Manhattan with little oversight. “How did they know?” Paz asked herself.
I was still a toddler when Apple released the video for “Criminal” and so I am somewhat new to her and her music. I downloaded her new album and then dove deep into all of her music and her story, and I continue to listen to her new songs over and over. Yet, there’s one track called "For Her" on her new album that I find hard to keep listening to – even though it is actually the one that gets stuck in my head the most.
In the very last section of “For Her,” Apple sings an iconic, American, sunshine-y, and persistent-through-time melody – “Good Mornin’! Good mornin!’” led by Debbie Reynolds from the 1952 film Singin’ in the Rain. Apple then immediately follows that lyric and melody with: “you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” In this way, Apple transforms the way we will forever hear that song and watch that film, as “good mornin’” and “you raped me” become entangled inside a resignified melody that seeks to displace what was once a mark of joyful, escapist fantasy into what is now a stark confrontation of reality. She then repeats “good morning” over and over again, with recordings of her own voice layered over one another. Of this last sequence of the song, Jenny Pelly of Pitchfork writes that “‘For Her’ pivots from a cabaret tune to a march to a swooping blues ballad to a one-woman choir of antagonizing angels.” Lauren O’Neill adds during a roundtable review for VICE that the layering of Apple’s voice
sound[s] like it’s summoning hell...It makes my entire body go cold because it’s so powerful and bold just as a statement in itself, but the fact that she sets this devastating revelation to the universally familiar melody of ‘Good Morning’ from Singin’ In the Rain – a tune we all know without really thinking about how we know it – forces it to smart even more resoundingly, the inevitability of the melody pushing the inevitability of cycles of misogyny and the cognitive dissonance of patriarchy up to the surface, right up in her listeners’ faces.
Three days before the release of Fetch the Boltcutters, Justin Chang on NPR offered a segment to listeners who are seeking recommendations for films to watch while quarantining during this pandemic:
What kind of movie watcher are you in the age of coronavirus? While sheltering at home, do you seek out joyous Hollywood classics like Singin' In The Rain, or do you lean into tales of terror, madness and social breakdown like all those viewers who have made Contagion one of the year’s hottest rentals? I fall somewhere in between eager for escapism, yes, but also for movies that speak to our present anxieties.
I used to see Singin’ in the Rain as escapism in the sense that watching the film offered for me a departure into an older, fantasy-like world of Hollywood magic and dance numbers. And then I started directing Singin’ in the Rain for my senior theater thesis in college, spring 2016 – the same spring when a turbulent Presidential Campaign was underway. Through the prep and rehearsal processes, I became more aware of the dark layers underneath the gilded surface of Rain and I began to suspect more of those dark layers underneath all other creative work that seeks to cultivate an opportunity for us to escape ourselves and our lives in safe spaces like theaters – particularly now during the pandemic when theaters are actually themselves deemed dangerous.
In Spring of 2016 when I was directing Rain, people everywhere were calling Hillary Clinton an inauthentic, manufactured robot. They criticized her voice – too shrill, not presidential. They criticized her clothing, her hair, her smile, her decision to stay with Bill (the documentary Hillary on Hulu is fantastic.) One of the debates during the 2016 campaign came back from a commercial break without Hillary Clinton at her podium because she was still in the women’s restroom which was farther away from the stage than the men’s restroom. So many conspiracies about her emails, her money, Bengazi, a sex-traffiking ring out of a pizza place in DC – the myriad of stories about her (many of which we now know were intentionally pumelled into our faces by a foreign government to destablize our election) invaded a public consciousness that made many voters not only suspicious of her but intractable in their unwillingness to trust her. Even though President Obama declared “there has never been a man or a woman – not me, not Bill – nobody more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as President of the United States of America” – I still continued to see so many lawn signs, bumper stickers, and posts all over social media emblazoned with a new slogan that shrugged instead of rallied: “I’m with her because I’m sure as hell not with him.”
The story of 2016 is one about the media’s power over our abilities to distinguish reality from fantasy, particularly around women. And 2016 is also a prologue to the story of 2017: how Hollywood for years and years protected a culture of powerful men sexually abusing women (and many powerful men who sexually abused men as well.) And even though Justin Chang sets Rain apart from “tales of terror, madness and social breakdown,” Fiona Apple’s “For Her” helps us understand that with our 2020 hindsight, the DNA of the 2016 campaign and the birth of the #metoo movement can actually be traced back to what Rain was telling us all along. In its essence, Rain is about the mechanism of escapism grounded upon the manufacturing of an idealized woman and how media technology’s nature to blur reality and fantasy could be weaponized to manipulate human consciousness – particularly the mass public’s perceptions of women who are in the spotlight.
In Martin Scorsese’s ode to early Hollywood, Hugo (2011) – by John Logan based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick – Scorsese features a flashback scene from 1896 showing an audience watching a 50-second film by the Lumiére Brothers, L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat. In the scene from Hugo, an audience watches the projected moving image of a big train coming toward them. At the point where the train would have jumped out of the screen, the audience leaps out of their seats as if to flee to the back of the theater and escape.
The Lumiére Brothers created hundreds of short films during the turn of the 20th Century that sought to introduce audiences to the medium of “moving pictures” by immersing them into the world of film through the singular point of view of their camera lens. The story of the audience trying to escape the perceived oncoming train seems to be a myth as I am unable to find substantial evidence to suggest that this event actually occurred. Yet, the myth alone – and how Scorsese depicts the event – captures how human beings who were first exposed to moving pictures did not know how to distinguish those life-like images of a train in motion as a projected representation of reality from an actual train moving toward them. And so the embodied reaction to a moving picture was “flight” – to escape the room. Yet, from that point on it seems, we as human beings began a new phase of adapting our instinctual “fight or flight” responses to such creative representations of our real world by quieting our flight impulses as we grew more adept at being able to distinguish projected representations of reality from embodied reality.
Certainly we still jump out of our seats in moments of surprise and horror. And there are of course audiences seeking to plunge themselves into fear and horror in order to trigger some sort of adrenaline release – I occasionally seek this out for myself. Our continued learning of how to distinguish projected representations of reality from embodied reality came to an unsettling head when in 2012 at a sold-out midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, CO, a shooter unleashed gunfire on an audience. Witnesses told reporters that at first they thought it was some theatrical component to the film until they realized that the gun-shots and the blood were all actually happening – it became “a real-life nightmare” said one witness, Christopher Ramos. This incident demonstrated how creative representations of reality – film or live performance – has a scary ability to muddy our instinctual and cognitive abilities to know when we are truly in danger and need to escape as opposed to when we are immersing ourselves into the fantasy of danger in order to escape from reality.
Oftentimes the genre of “escapism” is attributed to films, musicals, and movie-musicals that provide distraction from periods of depression, wars, political distress, etc. In a photo essay documenting the history of old movie theaters, Roger Roper writes that “the Paramount Theater in 1936,” in Gunnison, Utah, “attracted a long line of Salt Lakers. Movies were a popular, and affordable, distraction during the depression; escapist or fantasy movies were especially favored during this period” (see endnote 1). In referencing escapism and theater, Joseph Maclead gave a lecture in 1944 on “The Theatre in Soviet Culture,” in which he spoke about the role that theatre plays in certain cultures during hard times. Macleod singles out the West End: “The plays which are written for the West End are, in the main, escapist plays because people do not want to hear about life if they are not enjoying their own” (see endnote 2). Which is to suggest that during the 1930s and 1940s, people in England were perhaps miserable and wanted to see plays that offered them a departure from the misery of their everyday lives. In both of these instances, escapism is defined by an audience’s experience of disappearing from a harsh and cold world and entering into a manufactured yet imaginative, stimulating, and joyfully warm universe.
Lee Behlman has written about the role of the superhero/comic tradition of “The Escapist” character, particularly as the role relates to novels about the Holocaust’s reverberations of generational trauma. Behlman suggests that writers, such as Michel Chabon, center their novels around a character who has the power to escape death within an escapist genre framework such as the superhero comic as a means to bring The Escapist and escapism into a harmony that provides readers an opportunity to heal their own familiar trauma through a richly imaginative adventure. On the significance of experiencing fantasy through shared, generational trauma, Behlman writes,
Through its exploration of [escapism], [Kavalier & Clay] is remarkable for the intimate ways it shows how much pleasure and value may be found in producing and reading fantasy. Chabon’s intent in exploring superhero comics is not to issue a postmodern critique of the ‘real’ and realistic art forms, nor a populist anti-intellectual assault on ‘elites’ and their art, but to show, in a phenomenological way, how fantasy feels, and how it may assuage pain. With this comforting gesture may come the admittedly problematic, quintessentially American phenomenon of forgetting. (see endnote 3)
Arguably, the #metoo movement is one that seeks to undo generations of forgetting. Not only through the revealing of piles of NDA's that bound women to silence, but also through teaching us all about the mechanics of trauma as a means to figuratively and literally propel the public toward understanding how cycles of trauma persist in our culture. O’Neill, Pelly, and Nussbaum all discuss how Fiona Apple was inspired by the #metoo movement while writing her new album, particularly by Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford's testimony during Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings. Dr. Blasey-Ford’s testimony taught Americans about the inner workings of trauma in the brain and encouraged us all to learn more about the cognitive function of forgetting aspects of traumatic memories in order to heal and move through life without reliving a traumatizing memory again and again. And yet, elements of a traumatic memory persist, as Dr. Blasey-Ford recounts: “indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.”
MAKE ‘EM LAUGH
Singin’ in the Rain, made in 1952 but about 1927, is listed as the 10th greatest film of all time, according to AFI. It captures a hinge point in history when Hollywood transformed from silent films to talking pictures, with the performers themselves at the center of the film:
Gene Kelley as Don Lockwood, the biggest male silent film star in Hollywood: “Lockwood & Lamont”; Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont, the biggest female silent film star in Hollywood – she’s also the story’s villain!; Donald O’Connor as Cosmo Brown, a musical accompanist for silent films and Don Lockwood’s best friend from childhood; and, Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Selden, a “nobody” stage actress whose whole life turns upside down when Don Lockwood literally lands into our life.
Gene Kelly is quoted in a 1978 article by John Mariani, “Come on with the Rain,” for the journal Film Comment that “Almost everything in this movie springs from the truth...Jean Hagen’s marvelous Lina was an amalgam of every poor woman who couldn’t make it with the coming of sound” (see end note 4). Kelly’s definitive statement that “almost everything in this movie springs from truth” suggests to me that he wants us to see Rain as a kind of archival vessel that specifically centers the story of 1927 around the women who none of us know about because the new technology ended so many of their Hollywood careers.
Rain shows us the inner-workings of the successful “happily-ever-after” narrative – how a heterosexual love plot is formulated through the destruction and reconstruction of women to fit inside that love plot formula for making money. As Kelly describes, the character of Lina was an “amalgam,” and the very process of constructing Lina in this manner evokes how stories of multiple women whose careers ended tragically were cut apart and spliced together to produce the villain and antagonist of Rain. The story itself of Rain follows such an act of deconstructing and reconstructing women as Kathy Selden’s voice is tacked onto Lina Lamont’s body to create a Hollywood musical film that is deemed successful because America will fall in love with this constructed woman. This "Frankenstein-ing" of women's bodies and voices demonstrates how the introduction of talkies demanded of studios and their audiences to manufacture the idealized Hollywood woman who must have a voice and a body to capture a nation – and make the studio money.
On the subject of what constitutes such an idealized Hollywood woman, Jessica Taylor writes in her article “‘Speaking Shadows’: A History of the Voice in the Transition from Silent to Sound Film in the United States,” that “The ideal during the transition and in the new sound cinema was that of a union of voice and body, where the voice matched the expectations raised by the body. The expectations were, in many ways, determined by discourses around appropriate gender performance” (see endnote 5.) I suspect Fitzgerald’s Daisy in The Great Gatsby (1925) helps us understand these “expectations” for shaping the idealized, American woman’s voice during the 1920s as Gatsby tells Nick Caraway “her voice is full of money” (see endnote 6.) As Fitzgerald associates Daisy’s voice with money, so too does the introduction of the talkies propell a cultural landscape in which women’s voices become commodified, economized, and consumed with striking force.
In Rain when Kathy’s voice is stripped from her to be given to Lina, it is as much of a literal act of violence as it is figurative. In his 1982 book, The Voice in Cinema, Michael Chion writes that, “The physical nature of film necessarily makes an incision or cut between the body and the voice. Then the cinema does its best to restitch the two together at the seam” (see endnote 7.) And later, Chion actually draws on Rain to exemplify the politics of this technology, “The voice carries the day in this strange contest where men, those who decide whether to raise or lower the [...] curtain, play at being masters of the voice.” Michael Rogin writes in his book, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot that the deconstructive/reconstructive process of merging Kathy’s voice to Lina’s body “reunites image to voice by freeing the all-American girl from the older ethnic woman whose voice she has been ventriloquizing” (see endnote 8.) In this way, Rogin suggests that though Lamont’s image is one that resembles “all-American girl-ness,” her voice reveals her older age as well her Bronx accent, which connotes the sound of a working-class and immigrant America.
Mariani’s article takes us behind-the-scenes of Rain and raises questions as to whether the culture of the film set toward Reynolds was abusive. In the scene where Reynolds throws a cake in Hagen’s face, Reynolds recalls that though Hagen intimidated her, “Gene would have decked [Reynolds] before Jean would have” if Reynolds messed up the first take. Reynolds is also quoted as saying that, “Donald [O’Connor] was usually the recipient of Gene’s temper because if he yelled at me I’d cry, and it would ruin my makeup.” Reynolds was seventeen when she was cast in Rain and was a complete newcomer to Hollywood, as discussed in this interview with Rain’s book writers Betty Comden and Adolf Green. Mariani documents how Reynolds underwent a rigorous rehearsal process to be at the technical level of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, specifically for the number, “Good Mornin’’” At the end of a late night from shooting “Good Mornin’,” Reynolds recalls that the director, Stanley Donen,
gave the signal that it looked all right and I got up off the floor, only to faint dead away. I was carried to my dressing room and they called my family doctor. He looked at my feet and saw the blood vessels had burst. ‘What are you doing to this girl?’ he asked. And Gene said, ‘We’re making a movie.’ The doctor forbade me to come to the set for at least three days, but I was back after one day in bed.
Whether her account is true or not is not necessarily of interest to me. But the myths of the set culture of Singin’ in the Rain and the notion that Gene Kelly drove her body to destruction as a given principle when “making a movie” actually demonstrates the idea central to one of Rain’s most iconic sequences, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” Donald O’Connor’s farcical solo musical number in which he performs an ode to entertainers who destroy their bodies to keep an audience laughing. I find the number disturbing and unsettling to watch as O’Connor portrays how he is essentially held hostage on the stage by the audience to abuse his own body until the audience is happy – and to keep them happy. This exchange between performer and audience, as the character Cosmo shows us, is founded upon the principle that a performer distracts an audience from their own pain by putting himself through self-inflicted violence – but we call that “physical comedy” as the performer never reveals the consequences on his mental or physical state, for that might prevent an audience from continuing to laugh.
Somewhat tangentially, on the infamous dummy sequence in “Make ‘Em Laugh,” Mariani quotes O’Connor recalling that:
The dummy struck me as very funny, because it had no head but it had symmetry. And I used something that happened to me back in 1940. I was taking a subway to Brooklyn and was wearing dark glasses. Suddenly this guy who looks like an ex-fighter sits down next to me. I move away. He moves closer. He moves closer and puts his hand on my knee. Then down to my crotch. So I did a gay voice and said, ‘Listen, my boyfriend will beat the shit out of you if you go any further!’ That’s where I got the bit where I put my hand on the dummy’s knee and it smacks me.
I find this story significant to this larger discussion around violence on voices because of O’Connor’s pride with how he “did a gay voice.” Underneath O’Connor’s comedy is a story of sexual harassment met with his homophobia through the violence of affecting a stereotypical gay voice. O’Connor’s telling of the story asks of me to imagine his affectation of a gay voice. Through my imagining of O’Connor “doing a gay voice,” O’Connor not only appropriates the voice of a gay man he must have heard somewhere but he is also asking of me to appropriate the voices of gay men that I have heard somewhere. I then imagine those men, I cut away their voices, I attach those voices to the image of Donald O’Connor, and then I laugh at him dancing with a headless dummy. This, in essence, is a repetitive pattern of assaulting gay men by assuming control of their voices, and transforming their voices into a tool for arriving at a joke and achieving laughter.
And the layers of violence and cycles of abuse that undercurrent “Make ‘Em Laugh” encapsulates the dark layers of the nature of escapism in which an audience sits safely in their seats and is overcome by laughter as they watch a performer submitting themselves to violence without having the privilege to reveal that they are in pain. This then traps the performer into a cycle of abuse with an audience as they must continue to hurt themselves in order to fulfill their duty to entertain. The reality that the number “Good Mornin’!” led a doctor to ask Kelly, “what are you doing to this girl?” insinuates that Reynolds was submitting to a cycle of abuse just by “making a movie.” And so the actual story of creating “Good mornin’” is also now associated with the nature of creating entertainment in which artists – women, as is evident, to an even higher degree – are required to throw themselves into cycles of abuse in order to achieve a work of art that will make an audience escape from their own pain and depression.
I went down a long research rabbit-hole after learning in a 2007 article by Michael Posner in The Globe and the Mail that Fiona Apple’s parents, Diana McAfee and Tony-award nominee Brandon Maggart, met while performing in the 1970 Broadway musical, Applause, which was actually written by the duo Adolf Green and Betty Comden who also wrote the book for Singin’ in the Rain. Apple’s grandmother, Millicent Green, was a well-known dancer in musicals and her grandfather, Johnny McAfee was a singer for the Henry James Orchestra. I also read in Nussbaum’s article in The New Yorker that Apple’s best friend is a woman named Zelda...and oh god I really went deep into another rabbit-hole here because Lina Lamont’s best friend in Rain is also a woman named Zelda...
I started falling into this rabbit-hole because I wanted to see if I could put my finger on some kind of immediate correlation between Apple’s life and Rain – particularly to see if anyone in her family might have had a friendship with Debbie Reynolds and/or had been part of making Singin’ in the Rain. I could not find anything substantial. Ultimately, I find it significant that Apple is part of a family of theatrical performers – that she grew up around entertainers, particularly her mother and grandmother, and that her home was perhaps shaped by the mental and physical pain that performers endure to facilitate an audience’s pleasurable fantasy and escape. I wonder if her mother sang “Good mornin’!” with some minor key subtext, and if her grandmother spoke about women she knew whose careers ended with Hollywood’s transformation to talkies. I wonder these things because Apple has extracted a melody that lives in all of our consciousnesses, and I suspect that that melody might live above the surface for Apple in a more specific manner that offers her access to a deep awareness of the darker layers to Singin’ in the Rain and the film’s centering on how women in entertainment navigate taking control of their voices and their destinies.
As “For Her” ends with a chorus of Apple’s own voice layered over and over again, she urges us to hear the layers of her trauma – that we feel the violence that has been done to her and to women through her voice. And to use “Good mornin’!” as the foundation for the layering of her vocal chorus is to resignify the joyful tune into a call to literally wake up from a subconscious, dreamy, fantasy, escapist state and listen to women and survivors of sexual assault and rape, like Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford, who are using their voices to uncover hidden layers of our collective American story. And by taking a melody from the movie-musical that has become so indelible to our culture that it lives in our bodies as we sing “Good mornin’! to each other while making breakfast, Apple urges us to look back at everything we thought we knew about ourselves through Singin’ in the Rain – that Singin’ in the Rain is actually a key locator for undoing what we think we know, and to begin writing a new, revisionist story of America and of ourselves that is grounded in women’s voices.
Roper, Roger. “Going to the Movies: A Photo Essay of Theaters.” Utah Historical Quarterly 67, no. 2 (1999): 111-22. www.jstor.org/stable/45062514
Macleod, Joseph. “The Theatre in Soviet Culture.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 92, no. 4676 (1944): 607-617. www.jstor.org/stable/41362122.
Behlman, Lee. “The Escapist: Fantasy, Folklore, and the Pleasures of the Comic Book in Recent Jewish American Holocaust Fiction.” Shofar 22, no. 3 (2004): Quote from page 62. www.jstor.org/stable/42943678
Mariani, John. “Come on with the Rain.” Film Comment 14, no. 3 (1978): 7-12. www.jstor.org/stable/43452498
Taylor, Jessica. “‘Speaking Shadows’: A History of the Voice in the Transition from Silent to Sound Film in the United States.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 19, no. 1 (2009): Quote from page 10. www.jstor.org/stable/43104205
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1925.
Chion, Michel. The Voice in Cinema. Claudia Gorbman, trans. 1999. New York: Columbia University Press. 1982. Quotes from pages 125 and 133.
Rogin, Michael. Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1996. Quote from page 205.
Below is a 6-minute compilation video + pictures from the 2016 Production of Singin' in the Rain that I directed + co-choreographed at Princeton. Full Creative Team listed below.
Directed and Co-choreographed by Adin Walker
Set design by Edward T. Morris
Lighting design by Masha Tsimring
Costume design by Julia Kosanovich and Casey Ivanovich
Sound design by Joshua K. Friedman and Stanley Mathabane (SunSon PDX)
Co-choreography by Sophia Andreassi, Colby Hyland, and Trent Kowalik
Featuring Billy Cohen (Don Lockwood) and Maddie Reese (Kathy Selden) as their senior theses
Photos by Larry Levanti and Edward T. Morris
The links below are to organizations that are doing on the ground work in Minneapolis and are mobilizing efforts around the country to protect protestors. I hope you’ll learn about these organizations and donate to them. And if you are moved to share this SideLight piece with your extended network, I encourage you to also share the donation links to these organizations: